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Is Mindfulness the Best Way to Boost Heart Rate Variability?

Publication date: 16 October 2014

A research paper appeared recently in the International Journal of Cardiology reporting the effects of a mindfulness based stress reduction programme on heart rate variability (HRV). I found the results very interesting.

HRV is an established method of evaluating Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) function - particularly parasympathetic tone (the parasympathetic nervous system is important in the relaxation response, and in activating the brain's prefrontal cortex). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an established and proven means of reducing anxiety.

The researchers assessed HRV in volunteers before and after they participated in an 8 week MBSR programme. They gathered data under three conditions:

  1. Baseline (spontaneous or uncontrolled breathing)
  2. Paced breathing at 6 breaths per minute - a breathing rate known to boost heart rate coherence, which is a beneficial pattern of HRV
  3. Meditation, using the techniques learned on the MBSR programme.

What effect did the MBSR course have?

First, it reduced stress in the volunteers, as they rated themselves using standard questionnaires.

Second, there was no apparent change in HRV during the baseline state (1 above) - the participants weren't going about their lives with permanently altered physiology, at least not as measured in HRV.

After the course, the volunteers were able to produce a greater (positive) shift in HRV (and thus ANS balance) by either paced breathing or meditation (conditions 2 and 3) compared to before the course. So they have developed a skill - how to effectively shift their physiology towards relaxation.

Mindfulness meditation produced a greater shift than paced breathing - in other words mindfulness is a more effective practice than simple paced breathing. I find this very interesting, though not entirely surprising. Why would this be so? I think it's because both heart rate coherence, and more generally, optimal breathing, are best left to the body, or an automatic part of the brain or mind, as opposed to the conscious mind. Paced breathing in my experience is usually done in a mechanical way, but rather consciously directed. In a way it is over-controlling. By contrast the mindfulness attitude encourages natural spontaneous responses. Conscious breathing can be compared to trying too hard in e.g. sport, or playing music, or just simply getting to sleep - it's less effective because you tend to get in your own way.

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